I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy. I want to raise the growing problem of scam phone calls and text messages, which have become widespread in the past few weeks, as he will no doubt be aware. Fraudsters who claim to be from State agencies, for example, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Social Protection, are pestering people with calls that seek personal and sensitive details, such as personal public service numbers, PPSNs, and bank details. While most people identify these calls as fraudulent and do not engage with them, the convincing nature of some of the newer scams is leading to people lose money. One noticeable development that these criminals have now deployed is the appearance of Irish phone numbers on incoming calls and texts. While most people would be suspicious of an unsolicited call that shows up from a random foreign jurisdiction with which they have no connection, when it appears as a local number it unfortunately gives the call more credibility. This is also happening with landlines that are linked to offices, such as the Office of the Attorney General, or what appears to be a text from a bank. The more sophisticated ones appear in line with legitimate texts from the bank.
I have been in touch with the major mobile phone operators here asking if they can take action to stop the use of their phone numbers and-or network. Unfortunately, some operators have advised that these criminals are not utilising Irish phone numbers or networks but, instead, are using a method called “spoofing”. Even though the call originates from abroad, it appears as an Irish number. This tactic used to require a knowledge of complex telephony, but now open source software that is widely available means that anyone with access to the Internet can spoof calls with minimal cost and even less effort.
The purpose of this criminality is very simple: to exploit people, particularly older people and the vulnerable, and to steal sensitive information and money. There is no data available for the number of people who have been scammed here or, indeed, the average financial loss to people. I wonder if the Minister of State has that information. I fear that this is a hidden problem, as few people want to admit they have been a victim of a scam, and, therefore, we just do not hear about it. However, just because we do not hear about it, it does not mean that it does not happen on a daily basis. Only this week, I heard about one lady in my constituency of Meath East, who lost more than €1,000 to a scam like this. It appears that nothing can be done to recover this money, which is understandably distressing for people. Is that the case? Can anything be done to recover money lost in these scams? What can be done to address this? I have engaged with mobile phone operators. Something needs to be done to address this. Surely, the increase we have seen in recent weeks is not a sign of things to come. Surely, we will not live with this into the future on an increasing level. Are the Government and the Department aware of this? What efforts have they made to ensure that this is stopped in the first instance, and that there are protections in place for victims of these crimes?